Native American Drums: The Heart & Soul of the People

Native American Drums: The Heart & Soul of the People

Posted on February 28, 2011 by
Native American Drum: Bear

Bear Drum by James Little Wounded

The most important musical instrument to the Native American people was and still is the drum.

For centuries, our Native American ancestors have used drums to set the tone before battle, for social gatherings, to connect with the spirits of our dearly departed, and to call to the spirits for guidance and strength.

Native American Drum: War Pipe

War Pipe Drum by James Little Wounded

The voice of the Drum
Felt by many to be the heartbeat of the Oyate (the people), the drum is much more than a tool for making music. It is often considered as a living being with a powerful spirit and a life all its own – it speaks to its owner with a resonating tone that belongs only to that drum.

Drum construction
Drum making traditions vary from one tribe to the other, but the basic construction and process is very much the same:

  1. Most are made of a wooden frame or a carved out a log that has been cut to size, hollowed out and dried. Note: The drying is important, because as the drum ages it will put out tree sap, bugs and warp a little…or a lot.
  2. When the log is dry (patience is a virtue here, as the process of making a drum cannot be rushed…) rough edges are softened and any extra bark is sanded off.
  3. Rawhide or finely tanned buckskin or elk skin is stretched taut across the opening and secured with sinew thongs. Note: Some folks completely remove all the hair from the animal skin to make the rawhide seem clearer and others like to leave a rougher finish which does leave some tufts of hair on the rawhide and assumes a thicker appearance.
  4. Time and nature do the rest of the work to finish the drum (drying process).
  5. The drum is blessed.

Native American Drum: Buffalo Dancer

Buffalo Dancer Drum by James Little Wounded

Pow Wow Drums
During Pow Wow, the Native American drum is played by a group of men – sitting in a circle, they play the drum communally and make these very large drums speak with a deep, resonating tone. As the drum and singers work in a beautiful harmony of sounds from the past, they inspire the dancers to move and feel the excitement of the performance (these are breathtaking moments when you get to see a live performance like this).